A Little Stranger
This extract is from a chapter set five years before the main action of the novel. Fran has taken Nick, her English husband, from London to British Columbia for the summer. Fran, her sister Sarah, her parents Ireni and Tony, and Nick have driven 500 miles inland from Vancouver for a week-long holiday in a cabin on a lake in the Rockies.
Rab’s cabin had been in his family for two generations; his father and two of Rab’s uncles had built it. In the 50s the family had lived and worked in Cranbrook, the nearest town, but the younger generation - Rab included - had left for Vancouver or Calgary and beyond. Rab’s kids were now adults and none of them had much interest in the cabin on the lake in the Rocky Mountains, so in recent years Rab had taken to persuading his friends to visit the place with their families. It was only usable for two months of the year, Tony said Rab had told him - high summer, June or September at a push, although in June the lake was too cold for swimming and in September the ground might start to freeze. The rest of the year the cabin was on its own, left to settle and shift under its great burden of snow.
It was August now, and the lake was warm, at least, the top two inches of surface water was warm-ish. Whenever anyone jumped in they screamed; they couldn’t help it, it was involuntary. Except Ireni, of course, Fran had forgotten that her mother was, in some essential way, amphibian. Her bathing suit was old, and baggy on her; her skin had a tinge of grey beneath the tan; in the morning listening to her cough was a painful thing: but when she dove into the water in one long slim slice, she left behind herself, she left behind her disappointed family, she left behind the drink.
They quickly fell into a routine, their days governed by the extraordinary trek of the mercury in the thermometer that hung outside the kitchen window. When they got up in the morning, the temperature would start out very low, zero or just above, three or four at most. Tony would get up first, throwing on a fleece over his pyjamas, and he’d start the fire in the old iron stove in the main room where he and Ireni were sleeping. Fran and Nick, in bed on the porch, blankets, quilts, and sleeping bags heaped on top, talked to each other before getting up for the novelty of seeing their frozen breath on the air. They ate breakfast outside at the picnic table, wearing all the warm clothes they’d brought with them, blankets clasped round their shoulders. But then the temperature would start to rise along with the sun - nine a.m. ten degrees, ten a.m. fifteen degrees, eleven a.m. twenty degrees - and by early afternoon the thermometer would be pushing thirty, and they would all be in the lake, the black water a huge relief.
In the mornings they pottered; Tony drove into Cranbrook to get the newspaper, to buy groceries. Ireni went along some days, but this depended upon how much she had drunk the night before, if more supplies were required. Fran took Nick into town a couple of times, but Cranbrook didn’t have a lot to offer: there was a good place for coffee, next to the mall - where else? Fran said - but by then they’d got in their own supplies at the cabin. Mostly they swam, and sunbathed, and read, and ate potato chips and, in the evening, barbecued steaks and hamburgers and played cards, cribbage, gin rummy, hearts. There was no tv, and no radio, no noise at all in fact, apart from the water in the lake, and the wind in the trees. ‘Hey,’ Nick would say, ‘it’s lapping.’
Late at night the silence grew noisy. Before going to sleep in their bed on the porch, Fran would lie next to Nick, and listen hard. There were night sounds - the water always moving a little around the dock. There was an owl, somewhere down the lake, and bats that lived in the roof of the empty cabin next door, and other things that crunched and scattered on the woodchip footpaths. They’d hear a loon from time to time. The cabin had no indoor plumbing, apart from the kitchen sink; there was a shower hooked up in the woodshed - lots of spiders, and occasionally, a frog. And, further away from the cabin there was an outhouse, an outdoor privy, a small wooden building with two toilet seats - ‘Two?’ said Nick, ‘why are there two toilet seats?’ - and an electric light. Lots of spiders in there too, and other things that scuttled and fled, you hoped, when you opened the door to go inside. Fran found going to the outhouse at night truly terrifying, unable as she was to banish endless replays of ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ from her mind. The stinking black hole of the outhouse - the smell was really quite extraordinary - was dismaying enough in the daytime but at night, well, she avoided going out there if she humanly could, if she could make it through without embarrassing herself. Which usually meant she had to go out there at least once every night.
Nick, on the other hand, didn’t really mind the outhouse. He liked the way that, if you felt like it, you could leave the door open while you sat and look down at the lake. And at night, he could see the moon and thousands of stars in the clear dark sky.
There was nothing around to disturb that darkness. Vancouver was hundreds of miles to the west; Fran told Nick that Toronto was at least two thousand miles due east, maybe more, and there was nothing between here and there except Calgary and Winnipeg and they didn’t really count, Fran said. Even less to the north, you’d have to go all the way over the Pole and back down the other side before you’d find a decent-sized city. And south, well, just the long spine of the Rockies stretching down to Denver, another thousand miles of lakes and trees.
Sarah’s office didn’t call her, and they were all tactful enough not to mention it. They found a rowboat stowed under the cabin, a pair of worn, splintery oars tucked beneath the seats, and took it in turns to row up and down the lake. One evening Fran and Nick rowed the boat down to the end nearest the cabin, where the water was weed-choked and full of rotting trees that had been felled by beaver. Fran lay back in the front of the boat and let Nick steer their course; she dangled one hand in the water and felt like Ophelia, beautiful and a bit loopy. It was strange being here, so far from London, with Nick, with her family. She looked back at the cabin. Sarah, Tony, Ireni: and then Nick, with his own parents now both dead and buried. So few of us, she thought. A tiny family.
‘Nick,’ she said. He was staring intently across the water. ‘Let’s have a baby.’
‘Look Fran,’ he said, and he raised his finger to his lips to silence her. He pointed.
There was a moose standing in the water. It dipped its head down and looked up at them, chewing. It was enormous and preposterous, tall and heavy-bodied, with a great long nose and spindly long legs, shaggy fur and huge muscular haunches. As it ate, it watched Nick and Fran; as it ate, Nick and Fran watched it. And then a mosquito landed on Nick’s face; he moved to bat it away and dropped an oar into the lake. The moose loped slowly into the trees.
Nick looked at Fran. He smiled. He fetched the oar, then moved forward, toward Fran, rocking the boat. ‘That’s why I came to Canada with you,’ he said.
‘To see a moose. And to get you pregnant.’
Each day, Ireni got worse. She drank more, earlier. She spent more time on the lake, either in the water itself or lying on the dock, sunbathing. She kept a drink with her at all times and somehow the glass was never less than three quarters full. Sometimes the girls lay on the dock beside her, room enough if the three of them turned over at the same time. They didn’t talk, but read or dozed. It was fine with Fran that no one wanted to talk; it was a good way to keep the peace.
One afternoon Sarah dared Fran to swim under the dock, through the blackened and slimy pilings, and out the other side. Fran took up the challenge; neither sister could pass up a dare from the other. She dove under, her heart pounding; it’s a mixed blessing of lake swimming that you can open your eyes underwater without being stung by sea salt or chlorine. She was afraid of what she might see - an old tire, a great white shark, a dead body? Instead, she saw a bottle of vodka, swimming from a rope in the cold green water, knocking against the pilings. So that’s what her mother was drinking, vodka and lake, no ice.
On Friday morning Tony got up with even more purpose than usual. He threw on his fleece and laid the fire in the stove. From the porch, Fran could hear him moving around: he was cleaning up, she could hear bottles clinking. Although it was early and still cold, and Nick’s naked body felt warm and sweet, she forced herself out of bed and into her layers of clothing. They weren’t due to leave until Sunday, but her father was making a pre-emptive strike on the mess they had accumulated.
There were a lot of bottles. Fran put the kettle on and watched as her father boxed them up. ‘I’ll take them into town today,’ he said. There was a stack of newspapers and a large bag of plastic milk and juice containers that would need to go to the dump to be recycled. Fran began to lug the boxes up to the woody. It wasn’t until her third trip that she realised what her father was doing. He’d finished clearing out the empties and had started opening what was left, methodically pouring the alcohol into the sink.
‘Dad?’ said Fran.
He looked at her, but said nothing.
He reached for the corkscrew once again, but she got to it first. ‘Don’t. It won’t work. It’s not the right way.’
‘Give it to me.’ Tony held his hand up. ‘Fran. Give it to me.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t have to live with her.’ He took the corkscrew from her hand and continued emptying the bottles.
When Sarah and Nick got up, Fran made pancakes from scratch and bacon and eggs and coffee. They sat outside at the picnic table and ate, their faces turned toward the sun.
‘Dad poured all the booze down the drain,’ Fran said.
Sarah didn’t open her eyes. ‘He does that.’
‘Once every couple of months or so. It’s not a good idea.’
‘What can we do?’
‘What is there to do? We wait. We wait and see what happens when Ireni wants a drink.’
Nick had taken to spending most of his days in the rowboat, trying to get a closer look at the moose who appeared in the exact same spot at the same time every day, as though he’d been hired. When the moose was not available - on a break? - Nick did something he referred to as ‘fishing’; he used a rod and a line and a hook he had found under the cabin, but he had no intention of catching anything. He worked hard at casting and reeling in, took pleasure in the sound the line made.
Nick was already out in the boat when Ireni got up that morning. Fran was lying on a towel on the dock, in the sun, reading a novel about a serial killer; all the books in the cabin were about serial killers, which didn’t help much with going to the outhouse after dark. Sarah was in the shade, under the trees, painting her nails. When they heard the shouting all three turned and looked up at the cabin.
A lot of shouting, the words indistinct; Tony and Ireni were inside with the doors shut. It continued; five minutes, Sarah looked at her watch, ten minutes. Ireni’s voice alone, for a while, Tony no longer answering. They sat absolutely still as they listened. Nick stared at the fishing line where it met the water; Sarah concentrated on her hands; Fran looked at the print on the page of her novel; they were like small frightened children once again.
The porch door of the cabin flew open and Ireni ran down the wooden stairs. She was dressed in shorts and a top - most of the week she’d been in either her bathing suit or her pyjamas. She ran onto the dock - Fran rolled out of her way - and dove straight into the water. She surfaced once, and went under again.
The lake was silent. Fran sat up and looked at Sarah. Sarah took off her sunglasses. They were both about to speak, to do something, to say something at last. Then Ireni emerged from beneath the dock, and climbed the ladder out of the lake. She was clutching her bottle of vodka.
Fran and Sarah and Nick watched as Ireni went up the wooden steps to the cabin. There was no more shouting. After a moment, they heard the car door slam, the woody’s engine revving. They heard the wheels spin in the gravel on the steep drive. Then Ireni got the car up, and away.
Fran found her father sitting in the kitchen. She could see that he’d been crying. He sighed, and beckoned her closer, pulled her down so that she was sitting in his lap. She put her arms around his neck and leaned into him.
‘She’s gone,’ he said.
‘To the liquor store?’ Fran half-hoped her father would say yes.
He shook his head. ‘Vancouver. She’ll turn up at home, maybe next week.’
‘She’s done this before?’
‘She disappears, yes,’ Tony said, and from his look Fran could tell that it was already happening regularly, and that Tony was already kind of used to it.
And that was it. Ireni ran away from the cabin at the lake. Ireni got in the car and drove away and no one said a word. They spent the rest of Friday and most of Saturday swimming and lying in the sun. In the late afternoon, Nick and Tony drove into Cranbrook while Sarah and Fran cleared up and packed. The men arrived back at the cabin with a crate of beer which they stuck in the lake to cool, while they fired up the barbecue. All four proceeded to drink. They’d spent the week not drinking much - how could they, Fran thought, in front of Ireni? But now she was gone it was as though they’d made a pact: they were going to get very, very drunk that evening. And they did. They ate potato chips and played cards and did not talk about Ireni. Fran threw-up in the kitchen sink around midnight. When they went to bed, Nick put his arms around Fran, Fran tucked her head under his chin, and they stayed that way, wrapped up, limb to limb, all night.
‘We are beset by silence,’ Fran said to Nick in the car on the long drive back on Sunday. Tony was traveling with Sarah in her car. They’d left the cabin at dawn.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We can’t talk to each other. Me, Sarah, Tony, Ireni - it’s like we keep bumping into each other at social events, but we can’t remember each other’s names. So, yes, we’re related. But that’s it. There is nothing to say.’
Nick shook his head. ‘There’s plenty to say.’
‘Ireni, for one thing. You just don’t know where to begin.’
Fran nodded. ‘That’s right. Ireni gets in the way.’
‘Not Ireni. Her drinking. It creates this big huge black hole in the middle of everything. It sucks out all the light.’
Four days later, Fran and Nick flew back to London, back to their absorbing, absolving, working lives. The police had brought Ireni home the day before, tattered and dirty but oddly sober, contrite even. Tony went down to the municipal pound to fetch the woody. He took the car to the car-wash, then drove his daughter and son-in-law to the airport.
Once home, Fran kept in touch with her father via e-mail, brief messages devoid of any real content - ‘I’m fine. Nick’s well, busy with a refit at the restaurant. How are you?’ - phoning on birthdays, Christmas. Ireni began to disappear more frequently.
It was three years before Fran and Nick remembered it had once seemed a good idea to have a baby.
Novel (paperback), Five Star, 2007; Serpent’s Tail, 2006; McArthur & Company, 2004